Isthmus is back. If you haven’t yet clicked on its new site or sent a small donation, you should consider doing so. Right after you read this column.
The ad-driven models of local journalism have taken repeated hits during the past few decades. But the COVID-19 crisis is likely to deliver a torpedo-sized gut punch to journalism. American democracy depends on our response.
The prying eyes of a free press watch elected officials and serve the public interest. Sometimes it’s high drama, and sometimes it’s daily and mundane. But good reporting always plays out within the public’s view.
Now it’s up to us to decide how much we value journalism. How much we value being informed, and how much this key element of democracy matters to us.
Isthmus is a case in point. Led by courageous editor Judy Davidoff, Madison’s alt-weekly pursues the truth with great skill and dedication. Recent long-form, investigative pieces by Isthmus examined literacy instruction and often polarizing school safety issues. Last week, an Isthmus column by former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, called for a property tax freeze. Daily online and weekly in print, Isthmus continues to earn its stripes in Madison journalism history.
They’re back now, and that’s great news (pun intended). But the peril remains. The Wisconsin State Journal, The Capital Times and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel have furloughed reporters. Almost all of Wisconsin’s smaller newspapers have cut costs during COVID-19. Tough business choices about journalism lie ahead as this health crisis unfolds.
Our hope is that, in the coming weeks and months, many responsible Americans will make supporting journalism part of their own, personal new normal. Just $10 or $20 each month can make a big difference. When more of us are willing to pay for journalism, our democracy gets stronger and cleaner.
Plenty of news outlets in Dane County are worth supporting. You can subscribe to The Cap Times, State Journal or get them both at madison.com. Isthmus, Madison365, WORT Radio and local radio stations in general all deserve our support. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism merits special praise for its support of young journalists. Local newspapers in Middleton, Verona, McFarland and in communities around our state deliver valuable news and content.
There are too many good ones to name them all here. But we hope our point is clear. Journalism, wherever it still exists in our communities and in our lives, is a cornerstone and a beacon. Good journalism helps us all and in very tangible ways.
In a recent podcast interview, Cap Times editor emeritus Dave Zweifel explained to student reporters from Simpson Street Free Press that, “The people have every right to know what public officials are doing with the money that has been placed in their care and how they decide to spend it.”
Later, after the podcast’s broadcast, Free Press students discussed and dissected that quote. One student interviewer opined it was “just another good reason to keep plenty of journalists around and pay them for what they report.”